Medieval manuscripts blog

272 posts categorized "Decoration"

17 May 2022

Highlights from our Gold exhibition

Our new exhibition Gold opens this week. It explores the use of gold in books and documents across twenty countries, seventeen languages, and five major world religions. We show how people have used gold to communicate profound value, both worldly and spiritual, across cultures and time periods. All 50 of the objects in the exhibition are star items. But to whet your appetite, here are some of our highlights:

The Harley Golden Gospels

The exhibition begins with three sacred texts from different world religions written entirely in gold. Writing in gold ink was expensive and required great scribal skill, so entire books written in gold are very rare. One of these is the Harley Golden Gospels, made at the court of Charlemagne, who ruled over the majority of western and central Europe as Holy Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 8th century. In addition to the elegant gold script, every text page has a different elaborate gold border. 

Detail of gold script in the Harley Golden Gospels
The Harley Golden Gospels, Carolingian Empire, c. 800: Harley MS 2788, ff. 25v (detail)

Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an

Sharing the case with the Gospels is another sacred manuscript written entirely in gold, one of the volumes of Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an. This splendid manuscript is named after the ruler who commissioned it, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, who later became the Mamluk Sultan Baybars II. The Mamluk Sultanate was the greatest Islamic empire of the Middle Ages, occupying lands from Egypt to Syria and across the Red Sea. This seven-volume Qur’an was copied in Cairo by the calligrapher Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, and the golden rosettes and marginal ornaments were the work of a team of artists headed by the master illuminator, Abu Bakr, also known as Sandal.

A page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written in gold script
Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, Cairo, 1304-06: Add MS 22408, f. 92r

Malayalam treaty on gold

There is a long tradition in South Asia of using durable metals for the recording of important legal and political texts. This treaty, written in Malayalam, details a defensive alliance between the powerful Zamorin or ruler of Calicut, on the southern Indian Malabar coast, and the Dutch. It is inscribed in eight lines on a strip of gold over two metres long. 

A treaty in Malayalam written on a rolled strip of gold
Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, India, 1691: MS Malayalam 12

Maunggan gold plates

Dating to the 5th–6th centuries, these two inscribed gold plates are amongst the oldest items in the exhibition. The plates start with a well-known chant, Ye dhamma, which refers to the core teachings of Buddhism: suffering, what causes it, and how to end it. They were originally rolled and placed at the base of a stupa, symbolising the presence of the Buddha and endowing the monument with sacredness. 

Maunggan gold plates with inscribed texts
Maunggan gold plates, Myanmar, 5th-6th centuries: Or 5340 A & Or 5340 B

The Queen Mary Psalter

Gold was also used for illuminating pictures in luxury manuscripts. The Queen Mary Psalter is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Many of its beautiful illuminations are set against backgrounds of gold leaf decorated with intricate incised and painted patterns. The manuscript is known after Queen Mary I, to whom it was presented in the 16th century after a customs official prevented its export from England.

Detail of illuminated figures in the Queen Mary Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter, London, early 14th century: Royal MS 2 B vii, f. 68r

The Benedictional of Æthelwold

When St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, commissioned this book, he specified that it should be ‘well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold’. True to Æthelwold’s instruction, the manuscript is richly decorated with images of biblical scenes and saints, such as St Æthelthryth of Ely here, clothed in gold and set in an opulent golden frame.

St Æthelthryth, dressed in gold and surrounded by a gold frame
St Æthelthryth in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, c. 971–984: Add MS 49598, f. 90v

The Golden Haggadah

Haggadah is the text for Passover Eve telling the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Because of the tooled gold-leaf backgrounds of the illustrations, this lavish manuscript is known as the Golden Haggadah. It contains 14 full pages devoted to scenes from Genesis and Exodus. For example, in the top left Joseph dreams of his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his upright central sheaf, all set against the intricate cross-hatched golden background.

Scenes from Genesis in the Golden Haggadah
The Golden Haggadah, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c. 1320: Add MS 27210, ff. 4v–5r

The Psalter of Queen Melisende

Another manuscript that features impressive gold illumination is the Melisende Psalter. It was probably made for Queen Melisende (died 1161), who reigned in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou, and then with her son. Unusually, the initial ‘B’ (for Beatus, meaning blessed) at the beginning of the first Psalm is decorated entirely in gold with black line drawing.

A large golden letter 'B', containing intricate patterns and the figure of King David harping
The Psalter of Queen Melisende, Jerusalem, between 1131 and 1143: Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

These amazing manuscripts are only a small sample of the fifty golden books and documents that you can see on display in the exhibition. We hope you are as excited for the opening as we are!

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

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Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

05 May 2022

We’re going on a bear hunt

It's not every day you recognise a bear in the Library. But in a Book of Hours we recently catalogued as part of the Harley cataloguing project, we came across a furry figure who seemed strangely familiar. He is a rather plump little bear, clambering with some determination up a stalk of foliage in one of the richly decorated margins. He reaches up with one paw, his belly towards us, his head raised to reveal the underside of his snout. Once seen, such a cute bear is hard to forget.

Illustration of a climbing bear in a manuscript margin
Illustration of a climbing bear in the margins of a Book of Hours, Ghent-Tournai area, c. 1425-50: Harley MS 2433, f. 76v (detail)

And we had seen him before. We recognised the bear from an engraved playing card by an anonymous artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards. So how did he end up in this manuscript margin, and what can he tell us about this Book of Hours?

A printed playing card featuring nine illustrations of beasts, including the climbing bear in the centre
The ‘nine of beasts’ engraved playing card, by the Master of the Playing Cards: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Reserve Boite FOL-KH-25 (1-2), Source / BnF

The Master of the Playing Cards

The Master of the Playing Cards was an early printmaker active in southwestern Germany from the 1430s to the 1450s. This artist seems to have specialised in engravings (prints made from metal plates), as opposed to the more common woodcut prints of the period. Although their real name is no longer known, the artist is known after their most famous work: a set of finely engraved playing cards.

Playing cards were introduced into Europe from Asia in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages, the suits in a deck of cards were not fixed as hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades as today, but came in all kinds of designs. The surviving cards from the Master’s deck are suits of flowers, birds, deer, beasts of prey and wild men. Each card is printed with beautifully studied illustrations of the subject in a variety of inventive poses.

A printed playing card, featuring seven illustrations of deer
The ‘seven of deer’ engraved playing card, by the Master of the Playing Cards: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Reserve Boite FOL-KH-25 (1-2), Source / BnF

Playing cards as manuscript models

Almost as soon as they were printed, artists saw the potential of the Master’s playing cards for book illumination. It was common practice to speed up the process of decorating books by copying designs from models. With their appealing subjects, skilful drawing and small size, the playing card figures were perfect for adorning the margins of books. Figures based on the Master’s playing cards have been identified in over twenty manuscripts from the 1430s onwards, originating in centres across Europe.

One example in the British Library’s collection is the Saluces Hours, made in the duchy of Savoy (modern-day southeast France and northwest Italy) in several stages between the 1440s and 1460s. You can read more in our previous blogpost, Antoine de Lonhy and the Saluces Hours. The playing card figures in this manuscript are from the wild man and deer suits, and they date from the earliest campaign of work, attributed to the artist Peronet Lamy in the 1440s.

A table showing images of two wild men and a deer from the Saluces Hours, next to two wildmen and a deer from the Master of the Playing Cards
Left: figures from the margins of the Saluces Hours, Add MS 27697, ff. 13r and 19r. Right: figures from engraved playing cards by the Master of the Playing Cards. Source / BnF

The playing card figures were not only copied onto the pages of manuscripts. Some copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type, were hand-painted with figures based on the Master of the Playing Cards. Both the printing and illumination were done in Mainz, Germany. Here is an example with our climbing bear:

A page from a Gutenburg Bible, with illuminated borders including the climbing bear
Illuminated Bible in Latin, printed by Johann Gutenberg & Johann Fust, in Mainz, c. 1455: Princeton University Library, vol. 1, leaf 161, gathering 17/3r, Source Digital PUL
Detail of the climbing bear from the Gutenburg Bible
The climbing bear from an illuminated Gutenberg Bible, Mainz, c. 1455: Princeton University Library, Source Digital PUL

The bear moves to Flanders

Our Book of Hours (Harley MS 2433) is another instance of a book decorated with figures from the Master of the Playing Cards. Testament to the wide geographic influence of the playing cards, this manuscript was not made in Savoy or Germany, but in Flanders. We do not know who the original owners were because the coats of arms which appear in the manuscript’s margins remain unidentified. Yet there are several clues which suggest that it was probably made for use around Ghent. The Hours of the Virgin are a variant version for the Use of Tournai, a diocese which in the Middle Ages included Ghent. Several of the texts are in Middle Dutch, the main language of Ghent (but not of French-speaking Tournai). The calendar and litany contain a host of Flemish saints, including several especially associated with Ghent, such as Sts Pharaildis, Amand, Amalbergha and Bavo.

An illuminated page from the Book of Hours
An illuminated page from the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial of the Virgin and Child and a decorated border, from a Book of Hours (Diocese of Tournai, perhaps Ghent, mid-15th century): Harley MS 2433, f. 25r

A series of luxurious illuminated initials and borders are all that remain of the manuscript’s decorative scheme. Originally it probably also contained full-page miniatures, but sadly these have been cut out leaving visible stubs of parchment in some margins. Yet the remaining decoration provides plenty to admire. As well as the climbing bear, several other animals roaming in the manuscript’s lush margins are recognisable from the Master of the Playing Cards’ deck:

A table of animal illustrations from the Harley Book of Hours, next to illustrations from the Master of the Playing Cards, showing a climbing bear, a crouching bear, a walking lion and a preening bird
Left: figures from the margins of the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433, ff. 76v, 68r. Right: figures from engraved playing cards by the Master of the Playing Cards. Source / BnF

These creatures can provide further clues about the origins and connections of our Book of Hours. If we look up other manuscripts from Ghent-Tournai that are known to feature designs from the Master of the Playing Cards, we soon come across a close match. An illuminated manuscript recording the Privileges and Statutes of Ghent (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 2583) contains borders similar to those in the Harley Book of Hours. It was probably begun as a commission for some of the leading citizens of Ghent and then completed for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, after he defeated the city of Ghent at the Battle of Gavere in 1453. The illumination is attributed to an artist known as the Master of the Ghent Privileges. The borders include familiar faces from the Master of the Playing Cards, including our friend the climbing bear:

A page from the Ghent Privileges
A page from the Ghent Privileges, with a miniature of Johanna, Countess of Flanders and Hainault, and Thomas of Savoy, with a decorated border of acanthus leaves, flowers, birds, animals and coats of arms: Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm). Source
A detail from the border of the Ghent Privileges, showing the climbing bear
Detail of a climbing bear from a border in the Ghent Privileges, Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm). Source

Yet the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges also share marginal designs that are not based on the Master of the Playing Cards:

A table of images from the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges, showing a goat-like creature, a bat, a winged bipedal elephant, and an owl
Left: figures from the margins of the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433. Right: figures Ghent Privileges, Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583 (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm), Source

This combination of shared motifs suggests that the designs in the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges were probably not copied directly from the playing cards. Instead, it is likely that they were copied from an intermediary source, such as a model book containing designs gathered from a variety of sources, including the playing card deck.

Although the Ghent Privileges is on a grander scale than the Harley Book of Hours, the margins of the two manuscripts have enough in common that they may have been made by the same or a closely related workshop. The climbing bear also appears in other manuscripts attributed to the Master of the Ghent Privileges, such as the Missal of Jean de Lannoy (Lille, Médiathèque Municipale Jean Lévy, MS 626, f. 174v, image here), and a leaf from a Book of Hours in a private collection (image here).

Four climbing bears from different books next to each other
The climbing bear in four different versions. Left: from the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433, f. 76v. Centre left: from an engraved playing card by the Master of the Playing Cards, BnF, Source / BnF. Centre right: from an illuminated Gutenberg Bible, Princeton University Library, Source Digital PUL. Right: from the Ghent Privileges, Vienna ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r, Source

Previously, no one had noticed that the Book of Hours with the shelfmark Harley MS 2433 had marginal decorations based on the Master of the Playing Cards, or that it shares models with the Ghent Privileges. Who would have thought that one little bear could lead us such a long way?

You can read about some of the other discoveries from the Harley Cataloguing Project in our previous blogposts: deciphering an English exorcism manual, a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham.

Eleanor Jackson
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Further reading:

Anne H. van Buren and Sheila Edmunds, 'Playing Cards and Manuscripts: Some Widely Disseminated Fifteenth-Century Model Sheets', The Art Bulletin, 56: 1 (March 1974), pp. 12-30.

Gregory Clark, Made in Flanders: The Master of the Ghent Privileges and Manuscript Painting in the Southern Netherlands in the Time of Philip the Good (Turnhout, 2000).

13 April 2022

Discovering Boccaccio manuscripts online

The Italian writer, poet and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) is probably most familiar in the English-speaking world for his Decameron, a collection of one hundred short stories that were adapted by Chaucer and Shakespeare and inspired works by Swift, Tennyson and Keats. He was a key literary figure in late-medieval and Renaissance Europe whose considerable output included love poetry, courtly tales, a genealogy of the gods, and the first collection of biographies devoted solely to women in Western literature.

Towards the end of his life, disillusioned with love and suffering from a variety of ailments, he was only dissuaded from burning much of his own material by the intervention of Petrarch, a close colleague and mentor. Fortunately his works survived, and the many translations and extant manuscripts are testament to their popularity. In the 15th century numerous illustrated copies were produced for the courts of Europe.

Illuminated manuscript showing Petrarch approaching Boccaccio, who is lying in bed
Petrarch appears to Boccaccio who is ill in bed, in a building decorated with the coat of arms of the French royal family, from Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century), Add MS 35321, f. 247v

Twenty seven British Library manuscripts containing works of Boccaccio are either fully or partially digitised in our online catalogues. An advanced search in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts using the field ‘Author’: ‘Boccaccio’ produces a list of all of these with a selection of images from each one. Six are also fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Here are just some of these fascinating manuscripts.

Concerning Famous Women

Most impressive of all are two grand volumes of Boccaccio’s ground-breaking collection of biographies of famous women, De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women) in a French translation by Laurent de Premierfait. Both contain magnificent illustrations of the characters and their deeds. Boccaccio’s purpose in this work is to encourage virtuous behaviour among women, but the examples he chooses from among biblical, classical, mythological and historical characters are both good and bad. All the well-known female figures are present, each one accompanied by a portrait, from Eve to Medusa, and from Sappho to Cleopatra, alongside less familiar examples such as Hypsicratea, Queen of Pontus, and Faustina Augusta, wife of Marcus Aurelius. Christine de Pizan based many of her biographies of women in the famous Cite des Dames on this work.

An illumination of Cleopatra being bitten by asps
Cleopatra is bitten by two dragon-like ‘asps’ and blood pours from her arms, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 101r


Hypsicratea cutting her hair, surrounded by an army
Hypsicratea cutting her hair and joining her husband King Mithridates VI in battle, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Royal MS 20 C V, f. 119r

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts also features copies of the original Latin text of Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. One of these, Harley MS 6348, is an early copy made in Italy in the 14th century, not long after Boccaccio’s death. The opening page of De claris mulieribus contains the dedication beginning with the words: ‘Pridie, mulierum egregia...’ The first sentence translates as:

‘Some time ago, illustrious lady, while away from the crude multitudes and almost free of other concerns, I wrote a little book in praise of women, more for the pleasure of my friends than as a service to humanity’ (trans. Guarino).

The opening page of a 14th-century copy of De claris mulieribus, beginning with a decorated initial letter 'P'
The opening page of Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus (Italy, last quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 6348, f. 24r

Concerning Noble Men and Women

In addition to his biographies of women, Boccaccio produced a collection of biographies of both men and women, De casibus virorum illustrium, also translated into French by Premierfait. Some of these are very large volumes, each containing over fifty biographies with numerous miniatures. For example, Royal MS 14 E V, a Bruges manuscript owned by Edward IV, is almost half a metre tall and has 513 folios – the size of a small suitcase – so you need to be strong just to lift it off the shelf! the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has images of all the pages with illustrations from this manuscript. For example, a historical event known as the Sicilian Vespers, the Easter rebellion by the Sicilians against French rule in 1282 when thousands of French civilians were murdered, is the subject of one illustration. 

Illustration of the Sicilian Vespers, with a soldier stabbing a man with a spear while he is in bed
The Sicilian Vespers, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (Bruges c. 1480): Royal MS 14 E V, f. 488r

The theme of the biographies is the changeability of fortune. Boccaccio focuses on the downfall of famous people, all of whom are subject to the will of Lady Fortune. In book 6 the two meet and speak about the fates of the unlucky nobles who are destined to fall from dizzy heights of power and wealth.

Bocaccio in his study, with his vision of Fortune as a crowned lady with many arms
Boccaccio in his study, with his vision of Fortune as a crowned lady with many arms, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Royal MS 20 C IV, f. 198r

Another manuscript of his work, Harley MS 621, has a miniature at the beginning of each of the major sections or books into which the work is divided. In this one, Boccaccio watches Fortune turn her wheel. Note the cockerel in the border!

Boccaccio watching Fortune turn her wheel
Boccaccio watching Fortune turn her wheel, with an old king seated on top, a pile of fallen persons below, and a violent battle between two armies in the background, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 621, f. 217r

The Fall of Princes

The English poet, John Lydgate, produced an abridged version of De Casibus in a Middle English translation, known as The Fall of Princes. Three copies are fully digitised on Digitised Manuscripts. One of these, which was probably made at Bury St Edmunds, contains a series of illustrations of key scenes in the margins. One gruesome example is of King Cyrus of the Persians who subdued all the nations from Syria to the Red Sea. According to the Boccaccio/Lydgate version of his life, Tomyrus, Queen of the Scythians defeated his army, severing his head from his body, and throwing it into a bowl of blood with these words, ‘Thou that hast all thy time thirsted for blood, now drink thy fill, and satiate thy self with it’.

The remains of King Cyrus floating in tub of blood
The remains of King Cyrus floating in tub of blood, The Fall of Princes (England, perhaps Bury St Edmunds, 1450-1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 135r

The Decameron

There are also Boccaccio manuscripts on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts containing a variety of his other works, including three of his most well-known work, the Decameron. This copy of the Decameron, translated into French by Laurent de Premierfait, is decorated with borders containing the royal arms of England. This is because it was part of the collection of manuscripts owned by King Edward IV of England. 

A presentation miniature of Jean, duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait
Jean, duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait, with the border containing the royal arms of England, from the beginning of Les cent Nouvelles, a French translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron (Bruges, 1473-83): Royal MS 19 E I, f. 1r

Other Boccaccio texts include Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, a quasi autobiographical novel about a love affair set in Naples. 

An open manuscript with illuminated initials in gold, on red, green or blue grounds
Illuminated initials in Boccaccio's Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (Italy, c. 1500), Harley MS 5427, ff. 19v-20r

This overview of Boccaccio manuscripts helps to demonstrate that our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, though not providing full digital coverage, remains a key source for images of our manuscript collections. We continue to maintain it and make updates and corrections to the records. We hope you enjoy exploring!

Chantry Westwell

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25 February 2022

Meaning in the margins of the Theodore Psalter

The British Library has loaned four manuscripts to an exhibition at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, In the Name of the Image: Imagery between Cult and Prohibition in Islam and Christianity, which opened on 4 February. The exhibition takes a comparative, cross-cultural perspective to trace the varying approaches of Islam and Christianity towards the use of imagery. On loan from the Library are three lavishly illuminated Persian manuscripts from the 16th-17th centuries, together with one of our most precious illuminated Greek manuscripts, the 11th-century Theodore Psalter (Add MS 19352).

A Greek poem on David, written in gold ink and illustrated with scenes of David as a shepherd with his flock
The beginning of the twelve-syllable poem on David, in the Theodore Psalter: Add MS 19352, f. 189v

Completed in 1066 at the Stoudion Monastery in Constantinople, the Theodore Psalter is one of the richest illuminated Greek manuscripts to survive. It is named after the monk Theodore, who wrote at the end of the book that he was both the copyist and illuminator. The book contains the Psalter in Greek, distributed in 20 units (kathismata) corresponding to the use of the Psalms in Byzantine liturgy, as well as a poem about the life of the Prophet David and the appendix known as the Biblical Odes. With its 440 coloured illustrations, placed in the margins of its 208 folios, this manuscript is the most fully illuminated Psalter to survive from the Byzantine Empire. 

The Theodore Psalter belongs to a special group of illuminated Psalters called ‘marginal psalters’. These manuscripts place the biblical text in the centre of the page leaving ample margins for illustrations that are linked to the corresponding passages of the biblical text with red and blue strokes.

Marginal illustrations of the burning of Sodom and the five cities and Loth fleeing with his family
Burning of Sodom and the five cities and Loth fleeing with his family, illustrating Psalm 21:10 ‘You shall make them [the enemies of the king] like a fiery furnace’, in the Theodore Psalter: Add MS 19352, f 21v

This layout resembles the structure of so-called catena manuscripts, named after the Latin word catena, which means ‘chain’ or, in a more abstract sense, a series of loosely related items, like the links of a chain. These contain biblical commentaries with the biblical text in the centre of the page and the commentary in the margin, organised in dense units or figural shapes. The link between the biblical text and the corresponding units of the catena commentary is marked with an elaborate system of signs and letters which resemble the strokes in the Theodore Psalter.

Marginal illustration of an angel pulling out the boastful tongue
Angel pulling out the boastful tongue, linked to Psalm 12:4 with a blue stroke, 'May the Lord destroy all deceptive lips', in the Theodore Psalter: Add MS 19352, f 11v
Greek catena commentary
Greek catena commentary to the book of Genesis (49:22) with the biblical text in centre, the commentary surrounding it. Links are marked with red numbers written above the lines of the biblical text and on the margin with red. Octateuch with Catena, 12th-13th century, eastern Mediterranean: Add MS 35123, f. 88v

This similarity in layout between catena commentaries and the illustrations of the marginal psalters often helps us understand the rationale of the illustrations of the Theodore Psalter. Some images of the manuscript do not appear to have any obvious relationship to the texts they are linked to. They depict scenes from the life of Christ or saints, even later historical events, which are seemingly unrelated to the adjacent Psalms. Their connection, however, can be explained if we check the relevant passages in the catena commentaries. 

An interesting case is Psalm 45 which is about a royal wedding where the bride is addressed with the words ‘Listen, oh daughter behold and incline your ear … for the king desired your beauty’ (Psalm 45: 11). Right next to this passage in the Theodore Psalter, we see an image of the Annunciation, with the Virgin in the centre flanked by the Archangel Gabriel and the Prophet David.

Marginal illustration of the Annunciation
Illustration to Psalm 44: 11 representing the Annunciation with the Archangel Gabriel and the Prophet David flanking the Virgin: Add MS 19352, f. 56v

The connection between text and image becomes clear if we look up the passage in a catena manuscript. In a 17th-century copy of an 11th-century compilation, the passage is explained by a quotation from the 4th-century theologian, Athanasius of Alexandria, who writes that ‘this phrase relates to the Virgin Mary and foreshadows her annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel. David addresses the Virgin as his daughter because she was born from his seed and after him.’

Interpretation of Psalm 45:11 from an 11th-century catena compilation
Interpretation of Psalm 45:11 from an 11th-century catena compilation by Nicetas of Herakleia beginning with the name of Athanasius written in red ink on the margin in a 17th-century copy: Harley MS 5677, f. 136v (detail)

This commentary explains every element of the image in the Theodore Psalter: both the Archangel addressing the Virgin and David, who seems to be talking to her. It looks like a very accurate visualisation of this commentary. 

At first sight, the illustration added to Psalm 26:5 (‘I hate the assembly of evildoers and I will not sit with the ungodly’) looks unrelated to the biblical text. It depicts iconoclasts destroying a sacred image. If we check the catena commentaries, however, the short interpretation added to this phrase in the margin of a late 10th-century manuscript equates the ‘evildoers’ of the Psalm with ‘pagans and heretics’. 

Marginal illustration of iconoclasts
Illustration to Psalm 26:5 representing the iconoclasts, in the Theodore Psalter: Add MS 19352, f. 27v

For the illustrator of the Theodore Psalter, this identification of the ‘evildoers’ as ‘heretics’ meant the heresy of the iconoclasts, who interpreted the biblical commandment against graven images to the letter and destroyed pictures and icons. The illumination visualises this interpretation of the ‘evildoers’ who are represented as they remove the image of Christ from a wall. As a result, the just, who ‘will not sit with the impious’, are identified with the defenders of the icons, St Theodore the Stoudite (759–826) and Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople (758–828), who are depicted arguing with the iconoclast emperor.

You can now admire the exceptional animated commentaries of the Theodore Psalter in the exhibition In the Name of the Image at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich until 22 May 2022.


Peter Toth

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11 January 2022

Reach for the stars

Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 BC) is one of the best-known ancient Roman authors. A formidable speaker at court trials and political debates as well as a prolific theorist of rhetoric and philosophy, he influenced generations of scholars and students. It is less known, however, that through his striking and often beautifully illustrated work the Aratea, he was also responsible for introducing many a medieval and early modern reader to the Classical constellations.

Animation of the constellation Sirius, based on a drawing from a medieval copy of Cicero's Aratea
An animation of the constellation Sirius the Dog Star, from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122): Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

In addition to his many prose works, Cicero was also a poet. However, his reputation as a poet was tarnished somewhat by an infamous work he wrote about his own political genius, The history of my own consulate, which is now lost. Nevertheless, other examples of his poetic texts are preserved, including his translation of an epic poem by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus.

Portrait of Cicero
'Portrait' of Cicero and his friends from a Renaissance copy of his treatise on friendship (France, Tours, 1460), Harley MS 4329, f. 130r (detail)

Aratus was asked by the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas (320 – 239 BC) to compile a handbook on stars and constellations. The resulting work, entitled Phaenomena (Appearances on the Sky) is in hexametric verse and presents an overview of the entire astronomical knowledge of Aratus’s time in polished poetic language. It was highly esteemed, and survives in many copies, often with commentaries. An early example is a fragment of a 4th-century papyrus codex that contained the poem with notes on the right-hand margin.

Papyrus fragment of Aratus’s Phaenomena
Fragment from a papyrus codex containing Aratus’s Phaenomena in Greek with marginal notes (Egypt, 4th/5th century) Papyrus 273 (fragment B)

The popularity of this work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Phaenomena is the only pagan poetic text that is explicitly referred to in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks to the Athenians on the Areopagus, his speech begins with a quotation from ‘one of the poets’ of the Greeks. The unnamed poet was in fact Aratus. Paul cites from line 5 of his Phaenomena claiming that ‘we are all offspring’ of a supreme God (Acts 17: 28).

St Paul preaching in Athens
St Paul preaching in Athens, in a Bible historiale (Paris, c. 1350), Royal MS 19 D II, f. 498v (detail)

It was perhaps this wide-reaching popularity of Aratus’s poem that attracted Cicero to translate it into Latin at the very beginning of his career. His translation became known as the Aratea, after the original Greek poet. Unfortunately, Cicero’s translation does not survive in its entirety; the prologue and several other portions of the work are now lost and less than half of the original text has eventually come down to us. However, what the manuscripts did preserve is the illustrative tradition of the text, which may date from Late Antiquity.

Allegories of five planets
Allegories of five planets from a 9th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (France, Reims, c. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 13v 

One of the earliest and fullest copies of Cicero’s Latin translation of Aratus’s poem is a manuscript made in the early 9th century (Harley MS 647). The manuscript preserves a carefully edited text: Cicero’s Latin verses are arranged in blocks copied on the lower half of the page in Caroline minuscule. Above, there are lavish coloured illustrations, which contain explanatory notes written in old-fashioned Roman rustic capitals inside the images. The work, therefore, is both useful and beautiful, as is apparent in the section on the constellation Cygnus the swan.

The constellation of Cygnus the swan
The constellation of Cygnus the swan, Cicero, Aratea (France, Reims, ca. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 5v

This early layout comprising text, illustration and commentary proved very successful. It had a long afterlife surviving in a number of later manuscripts, such as a deluxe copy produced at a Benedictine abbey in Peterborough around 1122. This adaptation of Cicero’s Aratea shows a similar layout to the manuscript 300 years earlier but the illustrations are now drawn in pen, without colours except for red dots marking the stars of the constellation.

The constellation of Cygnus the Swan
The constellation of Cygnus the Swan from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122), Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 24r

Manuscript copies of Cicero’s Aratea were produced up until the end of the 15th century when they were replaced by printed copies retaining the illustrative tradition of the earliest manuscripts on the printed pages. This longstanding history of the textual and illustrative tradition of the Aratea shows not only the success of Cicero’s poetical skills in translating Aratus but also the wide-reaching influence of ancient literature and scientific thought on the evolution of science through the manuscripts and their illustrations. You can read more about medieval astronomical manuscripts in our article Medieval science and mathematics on the Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.

Peter Toth

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24 December 2021

Christmas gift ideas from medieval manuscripts

Christmas is the season of giving. This involves choosing appropriate gifts for our relatives and friends – not an easy task. Medieval manuscripts may give us inspiration, though in many cases the gifts would probably be way out of our price range. Here are some ideas for different situations.

For that special person

The scene of the Magi presenting their gifts to Christ on the feast of Epiphany is often included in cycles of images found in medieval liturgical books. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh signify that the infant is a future king, priest and sacrifice. One could follow the example of the Magi and give something expensive and shiny made of gold such as a crown or a goblet, or beautifully fragrant like frankincense or myrrh. Or if you’re looking for a cheaper option, perhaps a scented candle?

The three Magi present gifts to the Christ Child, seated on the lap of the Virgin Mary
The three Magi in the margin present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child, who is seated with the Virgin Mary within the initial 'E'(cce), in a Roman Missal (Provence, 1275-1325), Add MS 17006, f. 18v
The Magi present gifts to the Christ Child, who is seated on the Virgin’s knee
The Magi present a crown, a goblet and two vessels to the Christ Child, who is seated on the Virgin’s knee and holding up his fingers in blessing, in the Scandinavian Psalter (?Paris or Reims, c. 1250-1260), Add MS 17868, f. 17r

What to give the person who has everything

This was the problem faced by the Queen of Sheba. In the Old Testament (I Kings 10) we are told that she visited King Solomon to test his reputation for wisdom, prosperity and holiness. The magnificence of his court and the copious offerings he made to the Lord took her breath away. So she presented him with 120 gold coins, unprecedented quantities of spices, and various precious stones. This was perhaps not the best solution for someone who already had everything. But what to do?

The Queen of Sheba presenting a gift to King Solomon
The Queen of Sheba presenting a gift to King Solomon, in the Bohun Psalter and Hours (?London, after 1356, and probably before 1373), Egerton MS 3277, f. 85v

The Biblia Pauperum, a picture book that juxtaposes scenes from the Old and New Testaments, shows the Magi and the Queen of Sheba side by side presenting their gifts. But though gold and riches might be suitable for Solomon, are they really an appropriate gift for a baby? In this charming depiction of the Nativity, the Christ child appears to be trying to grasp the golden objects from the kneeling Magus, scattering them to the floor, while looking back at his mother to see her reaction.

The Magi before Christ and the Virgin (left), and the Queen of Sheba presenting a gold goblet to Solomon (right)
The Magi before Christ and the Virgin (left), and the Queen of Sheba presenting a gold goblet to Solomon (right), in a Biblia Pauperum (?The Hague, Netherlands, c. 1405), Kings MS 5, f. 3r

Corporate gifts

Receiving gifts from managers and business associates can be a mixed experience, and choosing them is even more difficult. Medieval kings were gift-givers par excellence, giving gifts to symbolise their wealth and power and to cement alliances with their subjects. They also donated large amounts to the Church in return for eternal salvation for themselves and their families. An early example is represented in a drawing of King Cnut and his wife Aelfgifu (or Emma) presenting a magnificent gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester, as a symbol of their patronage.

King Cnut and Queen Aelfgifu place a large gold cross on an altar
King Cnut and Queen Aelfgifu (also called Emma) place a large gold cross on an altar; below are monks looking upward within arches, in the New Minster Liber Vitae (Winchester, 11th century), Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Alexander the Great was both a giver and receiver of gifts, according to medieval accounts of his life. Here he is shown receiving gifts from Darius along with a threatening message from the Persian king.

Alexander enthroned, receiving gifts sent by Darius
Alexander enthroned, receiving gifts sent by Darius in the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose (Paris, c. 1420), Royal 20 B XX, f. 24r

Sometimes monarchs expected gifts in return from their loyal subjects. Gold goblets seem to be a popular choice in these circumstances. 

Jeanne, queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, receiving gifts from her subjects
Jeanne, queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, receiving gifts from her subjects, in Boccaccio, De Cleres et nobles femmes (Rouen, c. 1440), Royal MS 16 G V, f. 127v

It seems that manuscripts are rather short on gift ideas, if gold goblets are not to our taste. But wait – there is another option that many of us will resort to once again this Christmas… books!

Gifts for everyone

There are so many different types of books out there – something for everyone. And in the Middle Ages books were popular gifts too for kings, queens and princes. A most magnificent example is the Talbot Shrewsbury Book presented to Margaret of Anjou on her betrothal to Henry VI of England by the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury.

John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, kneeling and presenting a magnificent book of romances to Margaret of Anjou
John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, kneeling and presenting a magnificent book of romances to the future queen of England, who is seated in a palace beside the king, in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, c. 1445), Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v
Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria
Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, The Book of the Queen (Paris c. 1410), Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

Notice the dogs in both these images – they were a symbol of fidelity in medieval imagery. For us they are maybe a reminder not to forget our pets this Christmas – they need gifts too! Perhaps a tasty bone would be just the thing.

A dog with a bone
A dog with a bone, from a book of hours (England, 14th-century), Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

All of us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team at the British Library wish you a very happy festive season!

Chantry Westwell

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25 November 2021

Merlin the magician: from devil’s son to King Arthur’s trusted advisor

Merlin is the central mythical character in the world of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. A shadowy and untameable figure who seldom takes a single form for long enough to show us his true nature, he eludes definition today, just as he did a millennium ago, and his origins and fate remain mysterious. His character was probably an amalgam of Myrddin Wyllt, a bard and wild man of the Caledonian forest in Welsh tradition, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a warrior-prophet who was among the last of the Romans in Britain, and possibly a local pagan god whose cult was associated with the Welsh town of Carmarthon (from Caer Myrddin, meaning Merlin’s fort or castle).

Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower
Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower, Langtoft’s Chronicle of English History (N. England, 1307–27): Royal MS 20 A II, f. 3v

As a fortune-teller and shape-shifter, Merlin became associated with necromancy and the dark arts in the imagination of medieval Christians. The story of his birth was founded in the religious legend of the Harrowing of Hell. The demons of Hell, annoyed by Christ’s interference and his rescuing of souls from their domain, plot their revenge through the birth of an Antichrist.

Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge
Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge, Estoire de Merlin (St Omer or Tournai, 1316): Add MS 10292, f. 76r

They send a devil to impregnate an innocent princess of Dyfed in Wales, but when the child is born, their evil plans miscarry as the devout mother finds a priest to baptise him before he is pulled into their evil orbit. This is Merlin, a child prodigy with magical powers and the ability to foretell the future, attributes that he decides to use on the side of good rather than evil.

Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess
Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 77v

The earliest of the Arthurian texts to include Merlin was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in his Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). For more information on this work and the surviving manuscripts of early legends, see, our article on Early Latin Versions of the Legend of King Arthur published on the Polonsky Medieval France and England, 700-1200 website.

Merlin first appears when, following the massacre of the British chieftains by the Saxon leader, Hengist, in the treacherous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, the British King Vortigern flees to Wales where he tries to build a strong tower to protect himself. But every night, the progress made by his builders is mysteriously undone when the foundations crumble. His wizards claim that only by mixing in the blood of a child who has no mortal father will he make the foundations sound. Merlin is found and brought to Vortigern for his purpose, but he is able to see a pool beneath the tower, in which lie two sleeping dragons, one white and one red, and he explains that the white dragon (i.e. the Saxons) will triumph over the red (i.e. the British). He then enters a trance and foretells the future of the Britons to the end of time, predicting the coming of a great king by the name of Arthur.

Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons
Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 25r

Perhaps Merlin’s most remarkable achievement is single-handedly transporting a ring of magical stones known as ‘the Giant’s Dance’ from Ireland to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire to build Stonehenge. The earliest surviving picture of Stonehenge, showing Merlin helping to place the huge stones, is in a copy of the Roman de Brut, a verse chronicle of British history by a poet from Jersey named Wace, written in Anglo-Norman French.

Merlin helps build Stonehenge
Merlin helps build Stonehenge, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

Merlin’s next undertaking is to orchestrate the marvellous conception, birth and education of the future King Arthur. As he foretells, the young boy pulls the sword from the stone and inherits his rightful kingdom and - with Merlin’s help and guidance - achieves greatness. But though Merlin uses his powers to warn his young protégé about the future, he is powerless to change events that have been ordained. One day he appears in the form of a young boy to Arthur, who is out hunting in the forest, revealing that Arthur is son of King Uther and of Igraine. Later, changing into an old man, he prophesies that Mordred, the son who Arthur has conceived with his half-sister Morgause, will one day destroy his father and the court at Camelot.

Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest
Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest, Livre de Merlin (Arras, 1310): Add MS 38117, f. 76r

Though he is a trusted adviser to kings, Merlin remains an unpredictable character with strange habits and a menacing laugh that announces his sometimes-macabre intentions. In one episode, he changes into a deer and is served up as Caesar’s dinner, later returning as a wild man to interpret the Emperor’s dreams.

Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast
Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 160v

When he becomes obsessed with the fairy huntress, Niniane, he performs bizarre stunts for her that include setting two harpists alight with sulphur, saying they are evil sorcerers.

Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane
Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane, Livre de Merlin: Add MS 38117, f. 186r.

In the end Niniane brings about Merlin’s downfall. Having tricked him into revealing all his magical knowledge to her, she uses one of his spells to seal him in a stone tomb in the forest of Broceliande, or in some versions in an oak tree, until the end of time.

Stories of King Arthur and Camelot, alongside some of the most celebrated tales in medieval manuscripts, are featured in my recently published book, Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, now on sale now in the British Library shop. Perhaps it would make the perfect Christmas gift for a medieval story-lover?

Chantry Westwell

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Dragons heroes myths magic cover


18 November 2021

Robert Dudley's bindings: ‘A bear muzzled and chained’

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88), is best known today as Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite. He had been a close friend of the Queen from a young age and remained so until his death in 1588. He was referred to as her ‘Lord Robert’ by the diplomat Henry Killigrew in a letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, Elizabeth’s ambassador in France, on 28 September 1561, in which Killigrew expressed doubts about Elizabeth marrying because she only had eyes for Dudley.

Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton
Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 28 September [1561], London: Add MS 35830, f. 205r

As one of the central figures in Elizabeth’s life, Dudley of course plays a key role in the our current major exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, where he can be seen in this spectacular painting by Steven van der Meulen of c. 1561, which shows him displaying all the offices and honours he had accumulated during Elizabeth’s reign.

Portrait of Robert Dudley
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Steven van der Meulen, c. 1561. By kind permission of Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)

Dudley had been appointed Master of the Horse on Elizabeth's accession to the throne in November 1558, and he became a Privy Councillor in 1562 and Earl of Leicester in 1564. Together with Sir Robert Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, Dudley played a key role in domestic and foreign politics during Elizabeth’s reign. But Dudley was much more than just Elizabeth’s favourite and a statesman. He was also a known patron of the arts, a great book collector and a patron of authors and bookbinders, and it’s his interest in owning finely bound books which is of particular interest here.

During his lifetime, Dudley patronised a number of binding shops and the bindings surviving from his library can be divided into different groups. While some of his bindings show his coat of arms on their covers, the most easily recognisable ones are those bearing his characteristic crest in the centre of both covers. Several different versions of his crest are known, all showing ‘a bear erect muzzled and chained supporting a ragged staff on the shoulder a crescent for difference’. More information on his coat of arms and his crest can be found on the British Armorial Bookbindings website. 

Crest of Robert Dudley, from a book binding
Dudley’s crest from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

Some of Dudley’s bindings show the influence of Parisian bindings on English bindings at the time in the extensive use of gold tooling in an intricate centre and cornerpiece design, such as this example bound by the so-called Dudley Binder in brown calfskin, tooled in gold with traces of black paint and Dudley’s crest in the centre of both covers.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Plato, Platonis Convivium, Paris, 1543: C.19.c.23., upper cover

A much simpler group of bindings, also showing Dudley’s crest with the addition of his initials ‘R D’, is decorated with a simple frame around the covers with fleurons at the corners, such as this example, bound in brown calfskin and tooled in gold.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Georg Meier, Justini ex Trogi Pompeii historia, Cologne, 1556: C.64.b.2., upper cover.

When Dudley died in 1588, an inventory of his library listed over 230 books of which over 90 are known today, bound by more than eight different binders’ workshops between the 1550s and the 1580s. Books from Dudley’s collection can now be found in libraries around the world and the British Library holds examples of some of his elaborate as well as plain bindings. You can find more information on and images of Dudley’s bindings on the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings.

Discover more fascinating characters and amazing documents from the world of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots in the exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, open at the British Library until 20 February 2022.

Robert Dudley's signature
Dudley’s signature from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

You can also find out more about Dudley and his bindings in H. M. Nixon and M. M. Foot, The History of Decorated Bookbinding in England (Oxford, 1992); H. M. Nixon, ‘Elizabethan gold-tooled bindings’, in Essays in Honour of Victor Scholderer, ed. by D. E. Rhodes (Mainz, 1970); or W. E. Moss, Bindings from the Library of Robt. Dudley, Earl of Leicester, (Sonning, 1934).

Karen Limper-Herz

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